The second season of Star Trek: Discovery proves, with ‘An Obol for Charon’, that it is morphing into a show determined to serve two masters.
On the one hand, there is the kind of consistent, serialised storytelling which caused such division with the show’s first season, thanks to the ongoing search for Spock (pun very much intended) and the mystery of the ‘Red Angel’. Yet on the other, show runner Alex Kurtzman seems desperately trying to heave Discovery more in line with the 1990’s peak of the franchise on TV while continuing to imbue the series with an updated, retro-1960’s aesthetic.
If not a second pilot episode, Star Trek: Discovery certainly delivers a brand new mission statement with Season 2 premiere, ‘Brother’.
Looking back on the first season of Discovery, it was not only the strongest first season of a Star Trek show since 1966, it was also the most radical. Trek’s return to television under the original auspices of Bryan Fuller, later with significant support from Alex Kurtzman after a difficult road has now emerged as show runner and steward of Trek’s modern TV revolution on CBS All Access, was designed as a refreshed update from the era that spanned the late 1980’s through to the mid-2000’s. Gone were the stand-alone episodes, the 24/25 episode seasons, even the traditional structure of network television with one eye on syndication. Discovery was living in the now.
Season 1 threw a great deal at the wall. A ship and Captain we didn’t even see or meet until the third episode, allowing the first two episodes to serve as more of a prequel epilogue than a traditional Star Trek two-part pilot of old; pure, serialised storytelling which contained character development and story tropes such as the time loop episode within a broader season-long arc; and in particular, the Captain of the ship—the inviolate hero of all Trek series of old—turned out to be the villain of the piece, not to mention the fact our main character turned out not only to be of lower rank, but a mutineer to boot! Not all of it stuck, but Discovery from day one broke the Star Trek rules with a casual, F-bomb dropping swagger of its own.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of ‘Brother’, therefore, is just how hard it works to feel like the Star Trek that long came before Discovery.
What many Star Trek fans considered an unlikely impossibility has finally, it seems, happened: the franchise is well and truly back on TV, and here to stay.
When Star Trek: Discovery launched at the tail end of 2017, after several delays, it ended the franchise’s 12 year exile from television screens following the slow demise of Star Trek: Enterprise, and the Rick Berman\Paramount TV dominance of the late 80’s and 1990’s – if not the most iconic in terms of popular culture, then without question the most successful era of Star Trek in its half a century of history. Discovery was a symbolic return for one of television’s most legendary series and, as every Star Trek sequel series has done over the decades, it divided opinion.
If you put aside Discovery’s quality, and the difficulties behind the scenes in bringing it to bear, one fact is indisputable: it has triggered a revival of Trek which is now heading in some very unexpected directions.
Every July weekend at San Diego Comic Con, the biggest geek showcase on the planet where all the major studios and productions roll up to drop exclusives and surprises, you always get one announcement which courts a level of controversy and/or deep analysis. This year it wasn’t even the debut of a trailer for the Jodie Whittaker-fronted, Chris Chibnall-era new series of Doctor Who—which is going to almost certainly lead to a Star Wars-esque online tirade from grown man children at the idea of a woman playing the Doctor. 2018 had another major female figure from popular culture waiting in the wings get people talking: Buffy, she of the vampire slaying.
More specifically, the fact that Joss Whedon is overseeing, though likely not directly show running, a modern reboot of his legendary 20th Century Fox series which remains one of the bastions of 90’s pop culture, female empowerment, and genre storytelling. Note the word here that is crucial: reboot. Not revival. Not continuation. A reboot.
Nostalgia seems to be a double edged sword right now in Hollywood. What on the surface appears to be a comforting guaranteed winner in terms of audience satisfaction and cinematic box office is becoming something of a poisoned creative chalice. The lacklustre critical (if not box-office) responses to pictures such as Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom or Ocean’s Eight, sequels to long-standing, well-regarded franchises; or Lucasfilm’s decision to put a hold on more A Star Wars Story anthology movies after the tepid box office (by Star Wars terms) of Solo, seemingly putting immediately paid to rumoured Boba Fett & Obi-Wan Kenobi-centric films. There is a nostalgia blowback in progress, the ripple effect of which we are only beginning to understand.
Is this a ripple effect that, like the Nexus in Generations, threatens to engulf the future of the Star Trek franchise?
JACK BRISTOW: There are rules, Sydney!
SYDNEY BRISTOW: Then you break them!
Alias is steadily building toward a larger point of revelation across its first season, as the title of Reckoning alludes to. Thematically, the journey of super-spy double agent Sydney Bristow continues to be about her own understanding of the bigger picture, and her place within it.
The complexities of the narrative inside JJ Abrams show even facilitate, starting with Reckoning, a change to the recap preamble of the series’ concept. I’ve talked about how Alias doesn’t just employ a ‘previously’ recap akin to many other TV shows, but starts with a bigger explanation and contextualisation of the broader story the serialised narrative is telling. Here, Alias expands that recap by weaving the scene-setting around the four key characters at the outset of the series – Syd, her handler Michael Vaughn, her boss Arvin Sloane and her father Jack Bristow, the recap showing their faces and names just in case the people at the back AREN’T QUITE GETTING IT. I can’t recall another show which ever quite felt the need to prime the audience week by week with so much detail before even the previously recap.
Perhaps the choice was made because even just six episodes in, Alias is already starting to grow quite knotty and dense, and the show hasn’t even scratched the surface yet in many ways. Reckoning has a multitude of narratives bubbling away – Syd’s suspicion that Jack may have been working for the KGB, Vaughn and the CIA’s slow-burning backdoor hack into SD-6 established in the previous episode Doppleganger, Francie’s uncertainty about her boyfriend Charlie, Will’s investigation into the Kate Jones mystery. That’s just for starters, before any of the main episodic missions for Sydney are even covered, though really so far they have largely just been window-dressing around which the series can delve into these deeper storylines and building character arcs.
Reckoning, if anything, feels like the first example of what would have been a traditional two-part episode of a more conventional network TV show version of Alias.